Thursday, April 26, 2007

Matzoh: The Bread of Redemption

Have you ever thought about a paradox at the very core of the mitzvos of Pesach?

The multiple transgressions associated with chometz on Pesach make one of the central mitzvos of this Yom Tov—the eating of matzoh—appear strangely incongruous. Why would the Torah mandate the eating of a food whose essence comes so close to chometz—and whose preparation requires such exquisite care and vigilance to ensure that it does not become chometz?

For weeks before Pesach we are preoccupied with eradicating every trace of chometz from our homes. We go to great lengths to buy only those items that are absolutely guaranteed not to have even a remote possibility of contact with chometz. But then we pay $25.00 a pound for something which is made from the most lethal combination! And we buy not just a token few pieces—but huge amounts of it!

Why can’t we remember leaving Mitzrayim by eating watermelon, or apples or pears? We can drink wine to remind us of the freedom we felt as we left that dreaded land. Why must we davka eat matzoh?

Perhaps a clue to the answer lies in one of the names Chazal ascribe to matzoh: Lechem Geulah. We eat these flat breads because that is what we ate as we were liberated from bondage in Mitzrayim.

What is the inner meaning of liberation? Chazal say, “Ein lecho ben chorin elah mi she’oseik b’Torah, the truly free person is the one who toils in Torah.” The Torah does not restrict us, it gives us life; it gives meaning to life; it elevates us into a higher being. One who studies Torah and lives by its rules is truly blessed.

If we follow the guidelines of the Torah we have nothing to fear. It is true that matzoh can easily become chometz, but that doesn’t stop us from baking matzoh and making it an integral part of the Yom Tov. That is because we are totally secure that the process handed down to us by our mesorah and defined in the Shulchan Aruch will safeguard our matzoh from becoming chometz. No one abstains from eating matzoh out of fear that it is chometz, because one who is guided by halacha has nothing to fear.

The matzoh thus represents the highest level of belief in Torah; it demonstrates that we believe in the inviolability of halacha and that we trust that by following the words of our great halachic decisors we earn for ourselves life in this world and the next.

Only by submitting to the Torah’s authority can we be truly free and give our lives meaning and purpose. Those who bow to their own image and respect no higher authority are slaves to their desires and impulses. Their lives are in constant chaos. They have no core and nothing to anchor and stabilize them in a dizzy, turbulent world. They spend their lives enslaved to insatiable whims.

Those who eat the matzoh –and absorb its message—are truly free. Hence the term Lechem Geulim.

A second paradox confronts us as we sit at our Pesach Seder like kings and queens and begin the recitation of the Haggadah.

Slave Fare or Bread of Redemption?

At the beginning of Maggid, we hold up the matzoh and say in Aramaic, “Ha lachmoh anya d’acholu avasana b’arah d’Mitzrayim, This is the poor man’s bread that our forefathers ate in Mitzrayim.” Rashi explains that the slaves were fed matzoh in Mitzrayim because it digests very slowly and thus keeps a person full far longer than other foods do.

This would seem to mean that the reason we eat matzoh on the Seder night is because this food recalls our degradation as slaves in Mitzrayim and not because it represents freedom.

Later on, the Haggadah, in fact, refers to matzoh as the food of redemption. “Matzoh zu she’anu ochlin al shum mah….” The reason we eat matzoh is because the dough our forefathers took out of Mitzrayim as provisions for the journey did not have time to rise because Hakadosh Boruch Hu redeemed them so quickly. The dough was therefore baked in its flat state as matzoh.

Which is it? Do we eat the matzoh because it recalls the slave food we were fed in bondage, or does matzoh symbolize the bread we tasted as free men?

Dual Symbolism

Perhaps both reasons are correct. Indeed, it is the dual symbolism of matzoh that seems to lie at the heart of the lessons of Yetzias Mitzrayim.

As we begin the Seder, we identify the matzoh as the bread of affliction we ate as slaves. After recounting the story of our slavery and redemption, we proclaim that the very same matzoh which a little while ago was lechem oni has now become lechem geulah.

The same exact matzoh which was a symbol of avdus has been transformed, so to speak, into a symbol of cheirus.

It is noteworthy therefore that this passage of Ha lachma anya is said in the language of the exile and, according to the Ravan and Ravyah, was composed in Bavel. It is not mentioned in the Gemara and, unlike the rest of the Haggadah, is not recited in Hebrew, because it is an expression of the exile; it is the way matzoh is perceived before the redemption.

Silver Lining In The Cloud

This dual nature of matzoh speaks to all of us. Many times in life, the very things which are a source of torment and tzaar are actually strengthening us and preparing us for greater challenges which lie ahead. Years later, we look back and realize that had we not endured this or that painful experience, we wouldn’t have acquired the toughness and training to excel in what we are doing now with our lives.

The matzoh highlights the concept that the very same experience that brings affliction also brings redemption.

Matzoh’s essence goes even deeper. At the seder, the matzoh we eat is lechem geulah and a cheftzah shel mitzvah - even though all year round the very same item has no special significance. This is what the Haggadah refers to when it says, “Matzoh zu she’anu ochlin al shum mah, al sheim shelo hispik betzeikom shel avoseinu lehachmitz ad sheniglah aleihem Melech Malchei Hamelochim Hakadosh Boruch Hu uge’alom miyad.” The matzoh we eat on the Seder night may look like any other matzoh, but it is totally different: Having been formed in the desert as a result of the haste of the redemption, it is therefore lechem geulah.

Consequently, it may be that for this reason we are forbidden to eat matzoh on Erev Pesach. The Rambam (Hilchos Chometz U’Matzoh 6:12) rules that one who eats matzoh on Erev Pesach is given makkos mardos ad sheteizeih nafsho. The Maggid Mishnah explains that this is based on the moshol brought in the Yerushalmi.

Perhaps we can understand that one who is standing at the threshold of geulah and partakes of a food which resembles avdus is not worthy of redemption and deserves to be beaten.

Savoring Freedom

Perhaps this is also why we are not allowed to eat anything after the matzoh of afikoman. The Rambam says (ibid 8:9) that the reason it is forbidden to eat anything after the afikoman is to keep the flavor of matzoh on our palates. And yet, the flavor of the matzoh is a fleeting one. Even tastier food rarely lingers more than a minute or two.

But if we understand that the matzoh of the Seder is lechem geulah, then it follows that we should not eat anything after the matzoh so that the flavor and idea of cheirus, freedom, should remain on our tongues and in our hearts. Having partaken of the food that symbolizes the redemption, how can we eat anything afterward?

The Rambam (7:3) paskens that it is an obligation to make changes during the evening of the Seder so that the children will notice and ask why this night is different than all other nights, thereby giving us an opening to tell them what transpired. As examples of changes in routines, the Rambam suggests that we give children foods like klayos and egozim - foods they enjoy but would not usually receive in the middle of a festive and formal meal. We also move the table away, we grab the matzoh from each other and do similar things to provoke children to question why this night is different.

Why Questions?

Why do we have to perform acts specifically to provoke questions? Isn’t every aspect of the Seder night already strange and mystifying enough to prompt our children’s curiosity? We sit at the table wearing kittels, with all sorts of strange items before us, and everything we do is outside our normal routine. We sit differently, eat differently, drink differently, and wash differently. Almost nothing is the same. Shouldn’t that be sufficient to provoke the young and unlearned ones to ask what is going on? If they haven’t caught on that this night is different by the time they are seated at the Seder table for a few minutes, is distributing nuts any more likely to elicit the questions that can lead to an explanation of Pesach?

The Rambam appears to be saying that there is a special din to perform actions at the Seder strictly for the purpose of arousing children’s questions. We are not yotzeh that chiyuv by performing actions whose purpose is to fulfill specific Torah obligations such as drinking wine, washing hands differently, arranging the ka’arah and eating matzoh. There is an additional obligation to perform certain actions for the exclusive purpose of stimulating questions from the youngsters.

The question-and-answer framework is central to the Seder and is not limited to children. If no children are present, the adults must ask each other questions. If a person is conducting the Seder by himself, he directs both the questions and answers to himself. Perhaps that is because only one who is interested enough to ask a question will actually hear the answer.

Shackles Could Have Lasted Forever

Chazal instructed us when telling sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim to begin b’gnus and culminate b’shvach, to start with the shame and end with the glory. So many of the things we do at the Seder are performed in a manner to express cheirus. Why, then, does the Haggadah hearken back to the period of g’nus? Once again, we encounter the dual message of bondage and redemption.

Every person is obligated at the Seder to envision himself as if he had been released from bondage in Mitzrayim. “In every generation a person is obligated to see himself as if he personally had exited Mitzrayim,” the Haggadah states. As we begin the Seder, we also recite the chapter that testifies that if our forefathers had not been released, we would still be subservient to Paroh in Mitzrayim.

How do we know that a revolution or other world events leading to the eventual overthrow of Paroh would not have set the Jews free? Paroh and his institutions are but a distant memory today. How, then, can one assume that the Jewish people would still be subservient to Paroh in Mitzrayim?

Perhaps these statements are alluding to how a person should deal with times of challenge.

We all have our ups and down, sad times and happy ones, triumphs and successes, as well as defeat and despondence. When all we see is doom and gloom, we can easily fall prey to confusion and despair.

The Seder speaks to us, shakes us out of this negative mindset and helps us put everything in perspective. It teaches us that the shackles of yesurim do not last forever.

We begin b’gnus, recounting that we were lowly slaves in Mitzrayim. We think about the tears we have shed over our own problems and humiliation that we have had to endure. Our minds wander as we think about our own Golus Mitzrayim and the things that afflict us.

And then we are mesayeim b’shvach. The Haggadah continues and recounts how Hashem kept his pact with the Avos and redeemed the Jews from the misery of Egypt. The darkness and gloom came to a radical and abrupt halt. The slavery ended; the decades of being enslaved to an evil master were finally over. We were out of Mitzrayim, free and triumphant.

The Haggadah proclaims to every Jew to never give up. The Haggadah reminds every Jew that all that transpires is part of a Divine plan. The plan is not necessarily evident to us as we live through the downside, but often times, when the period of torment is over, with the benefit of hindsight, the entire picture becomes clear. The light at the end of the tunnel shines upon what transpired and gives one a more complete picture and understanding of what happened and why.

”Bechol dor vador chayov odom liros es atzmo k’illu hu yotzoh m’Mitzrayim.” Everyone has to reflect upon the departure from Mitzrayim and transpose that epic event to his own life. Every person has to see that just as he was freed from Mitzrayim, he will be released from the crises weighing him down in this golus.

At the Seder, we say “Vehi she’amdah,” which proclaims that in every generation the Jewish people are targeted for death, but with Hashem’s help, they eventually triumph. In every generation, in some part of the world, there is a Paroh who seeks our annihilation, but G-d foils his plan and rescues us.

So too, in our personal lives, there are times when things seem hopelessly tangled and headed for disaster. We feel thwarted at every turn. At times, we feel utterly lost.

Questions That Kindle Change

We often are haunted by questions. Why don’t my plans succeed? Why do so many troubles overwhelm me? We keep the questions bottled up inside of us, afraid of asking them and perhaps afraid of facing the answers.

But questions can lead us to better understand life as well as our mesorah and the yesodos of emunah. Those are the questions that we are taught to ask on the Seder night.

We are taught that every question has an answer. Although we may not be privileged to attain or comprehend the answer, there is one. That is why we recite the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim in question and answer format, for our own lives parallel the tale of Yetzias Mitzrayim.

Previously we translated lechem oni as the bread of affliction and poor people. The Gemara in Pesachim [115b] offers another explanation. It teaches that it is called lechem oni because it is “bread upon which we recite many words [at the Seder] - lechem she’onin olov devorim harbeh.” Perhaps in this usage of the word onin, from the root word anah, to answer, there is an allusion to the question-answer theme that runs through the Seder.

Matzoh is the bread upon which we answer many questions as we sit at the Seder. Therefore, it is referred to as lechem oni. And why do we answer many questions in the presence of the matzoh? Because matzoh is lechem geulah, eaten because Hashem rushed us out of Mitzrayim, symbolized by the hastily baked matzohs.

Eating this food generates an internal understanding about the connection between hardship and spiritual growth. Lechem oni is the “answering” bread - a powerful spiritual “vitamin” leading us to a higher dimension of awareness.

As we eat the lechem geulah and recognize that this same lechem was just a little while ago lechem avdus, our eyes are opened to some liberating truths: events that appear to sap our strength and lead us to despair can actually open the door to recovery, redemption and success.

No matter how bad things seem, as long as there is life, there is hope. Ki bechipazon yotzosah mei’Eretz Mitzrayim. In great haste you left Mitzrayim… In the twinkling of an eye, the bread of affliction becomes bread of resurgence.

May we all be zoche to go mei’avdus lecheirus in our personal lives as well as in our destiny as a klal. Venodeh lecha shir chodosh al geuloseinu v’al pedus nafsheinu.


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